Review – Spymonkey – The Complete Deaths, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 5th May 2016

Complete DeathsAnyone who’s familiar with the Spymonkey oeuvre will know just one thing in advance of this show; it will be anarchic. It will probably be surreal; very likely subversive; there may be nudity (or at least flashes thereof); there will almost certainly be clowning; it’s bound to break most of the rules of drama; and it will create a situation where a reviewer has no choice but to include no fewer than five semi-colons in a sentence.

Spymonkey pantsThis was our fourth exposure to Spymonkey. Initially I resisted their siren call, because I thought they sounded just too silly. But I was encouraged to check them out by Top Management at the Royal and Derngate (I know, get me) and they were right. The stylish nonsense of Oedipussy, the scurrilous chaos of Cooped (which I think remains my favourite), the wayward farce of Every Last Trick and now The Complete Deaths, where Toby and the team attempt to recreate all the deaths that happen onstage in the entire works of Shakespeare. No off-stage deaths though. Oh no. That’s very clear. Helping us to identify and appreciate each individual death, an LED banner at the top of the proscenium arch declares the name of each relevant play and victim in Brechtian splendour, whilst another LED counter counts down the number of deaths left to re-enact, the number steadily reducing with ghoulish inevitability. The four performances in Northampton are described as previews in advance of the show opening next week as part of the Brighton Festival. So I guess what we saw last night might not be quite the finished product? But I’ll just have to assume it is.

Spymonkey bloodYou enter the auditorium to the sight of four stand up microphones in a row, which led me to expect some form of Jersey Boys entertainment. (Actually, Spymonkey channelling their inner Frankie Vallis would be well worth a ticket). But that would have been at odds with the sight of Petra Massey and Stephan Kreiss taking turns playing at dead on the stage floor, whilst the other films a fly wandering and buzzing all over them. (It’s not a real fly. No flies were harmed during the making of this show, the programme promises us. If that’s the case, they managed to find at least one fly that well deserves its Equity card.) The fly acts as a metaphor for death and a symbol of mortality, throughout the show. That’s no doubt the brainwave of Spymonkey boss Toby Park, who sees, in this production, an opportunity for true artistic revelation, to pare down the overblown inadequacies of a theatre company known for mere slapstick, to challenge its overfed and overcosseted petit bourgeois audience into confronting the reality of life and death, to take the theatrical art to the highest level of achievement; in fact, to indulge in overwhelmingly up-himself self-important pomposity. And he does it so well.

CleopatraAs a stark contrast to the sheer dramatic integrity of Toby’s approach to the work, the other members of the company are not perhaps quite so artistically aspirational. Aitor wants to be a grand actor, Petra wants some financial security (and to play Ophelia – not allowed, she’s offstage when she dies), and Stephan just wants to play. And that’s the strength of this show – Toby going in one direction (arty, with a capital F), the others in the other. Things come to a crunch when Toby’s very future with the company is questioned, resulting in his spectacular hurt puppy-dog kicked in the nuts look. Still, he always has the graphic design to fall back on. I think I have his business card somewhere.

SpymonkeyAnd of course, there’s all the usual silly Spymonkey escapades to enjoy. Some of those interpretations of Shakespearean deaths are just brilliant. Aitor’s Romeo, getting his codpiece caught on the stepladder, as he lands on top of Petra’s Juliet had me in hysterics. The interminably and inappropriately jolly characters in Titus Andronicus, Petra’s interpretation of Thisbe as a bit of a scrubber, and the fabulously staged death of Hector in Troilus and Cressida by percussion tubing to Yazoo’s Only You, are all examples of their creatively inventive re-enactments. The pathos captured in the scene where Cinna the Poet is murdered was – literally – unreal. For Brutus’ death at the hands of Strato, Aitor seeks a member of the audience to join him on stage – so you have been warned. As it happens, George, who was Aitor’s assistant for the first night, had a brilliantly natural deadpan comic delivery and their double act worked a treat. There were many other remarkable, and hilarious, deaths but going into too much detail will only spoil it for you. Suffice to say that probably the crowning glory of the re-enactments was Petra’s tasteful and sensitive portrayal of the death of Cleopatra. Never has an asp had more fun. And even Shakespeare himself makes an appearance!

A very funny, probably unique evening of Shakespearean entertainment. I haven’t seen Mrs Chrisparkle laugh this much since the time I explained to her why I had been too busy to do the laundry. The company has such a wonderful sense of fun and that enviable total lack of inhibition that it is impossible not to love them. Once it has opened at Brighton Festival next week, the tour carries on throughout the country and Istanbul and Chicago, would you believe. No better stressbuster than to enjoy two middle-aged gentlemen in their underpants smearing each other with blood. A palpable hit. (Sorry, but it had to be said.)

Review – Every Last Trick, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 25th April 2014

Every Last TrickAmong the great names of theatrical comedy, Georges Feydeau is still worthy of a very high place. During a phenomenally successful career spanning more than thirty years he wrote 38 farces, not only popular in his native France but translated all over the world. They also lend themselves very well to modern adaptation, and I remember hooting with delight at Leonard Rossiter in 1977 when a schoolmate and I went to see “The Frontiers of Farce” at the Old Vic, the first act of which was Feydeau’s “On Purge Bébé”, concerning the plight of a manufacturer of unbreakable chamber pots – which broke; and in 1988 when the newly married Mrs Chrisparkle and I took our parents, again to the Old Vic, to see “A Flea in her Ear”.

The Whole CastMy memory of those shows is that they were standard revivals rather than re-workings. Many of Feydeau’s plays are good enough simply to translate them and get on with it. But that’s not the kind of thing one has come to expect from Spymonkey on their regular visits to the Royal and Derngate. They’re back – well half of them – and working with Told by an Idiot’s co-artistic director Paul Hunter, and two fresh but equally wacky cast members, on a modern re-telling of Feydeau’s Le Système Ribardier, sometimes translated as Every Trick in the Book, but here, in Tamsin Oglesby’s version, as “Every Last Trick”.

Toby Park and Adrien GygaxThe result is a brilliantly hilarious evening at the theatre, not quite in the usual Spymonkey tradition of an improvised, entirely original, surreal, abstract hotch-potch; but with a proper script, in a proper recognisable setting, and with proper characters. To give you a clue as to what goes on: Juan is Angela’s second husband, he a roué with a Spanish accent, she paranoid about the infidelity of men – Juan in particular – as her first husband, Jacques, had obviously put it about a bit. Juan is a member of the magic circle and has found a way of carrying on affairs behind Angela’s back – he hypnotises her every time he goes out and has his way with the wine merchant’s wife, then wakes her up on his return. Unless you know the magic words that will make her sleep and wake her up, you’ve got no clue as to how it happens. Hence the trick of the title. Into this deception stumbles Tom, who has carried a candle for Angela for many years, as he has heard that she is no longer married. But he didn’t realise she’d already married Juan, so, deeply disappointed, he prepares to head back to Burma/Borneo on his elephant. But, not so fast, they want him to stay – which he accepts, in the hope himself of a spot of hows-your-father with Angela, and by the time we’ve got to that stage of the plot, the only way out is completely nonsensical – not that there’d been much sense this far.

Aitor BasauriYou can’t understate the brilliance and comic inspiration of the team when it comes to creating ludicrously funny situations and following them through to their illogical conclusions. Whether they do it to music, or by involving the audience, or using ham magic, the lengths to which they will go knows no bounds. At least in this show they do manage to keep their kit on, which is not something you can always guarantee. It’s virtually impossible – and not very helpful – for me to attempt to explain some of the things they do; it’s much better if you go and see it for yourself and allow yourself to be stunned and marvelled at their ridiculous exploits.

Adrien GygaxI can tell you though that the cast of four are just superb throughout. Spymonkey boss Toby Park is Tom, arriving in England in his jungle outfit, hot off the elephant, the very embodiment of stiff upper lippishness, which means he can be both noble and a prat at the same time. Sophie Russell is wonderful as the paranoid and magically narcoleptic Angela; she’s also delightfully frightfully English, juxtaposing nicely with her tap dancing eccentricities and surprising tendency to bully the menfolk. Spymonkey’s Aitor Basauri is just sensational in his clowning, which can be deft and subtle, or outrageously overblown. He has the ability to render the audience helpless with laughter with just one twitch of an eyebrow, and he sets up such a brilliant rapport with us that you sense you know precisely what he’s thinking all the way through. I think he may have become my favourite comedy actor after this performance. The final member of the quartet is Adrien Gygax, who also gives a splendidly funny physical comedy performance as the dipsomaniac servant Gus. They all work together so well though, that the whole show is a complete team effort.

Toby ParkSpymonkey just get better and better each time you see them. Whether it’s the collaboration with Paul Hunter or the fact they’ve got a more tangible script to deal with, I don’t know; but I think this particular show has absolutely brought the best out of them all. They’re having so much fun out there themselves, that it really spreads to us in the audience. There were a large number of corpsing moments last Friday night – which in a production like this just adds to the general hilarity – and you’ve got absolutely no idea whether they’re intentional or not. That’s the magic of live theatre – no two performances are ever identical – and I would imagine that rule applies to this show more than most. It’s on at the Royal until 10th May – and if you like an evening of blissfully stupid comedy, you can’t go anywhere better.

Sophie RussellP.S. The programme alerts us to the fact that Spymonkey regular Stephan Kreiss is currently under the watch of heart surgeons, which Mrs C and I were very sorry to read. However, I have it on good authority that he is well on the mend and will be back with more lunacy soon. We wish him all the very best for a speedy recovery!

Review – Spymonkey’s Cooped, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 15th January 2013

CoopedWith happy memories of Spymonkey’s Oedipussy from last year, we naturally booked for this year’s production, Cooped, which is a remounting of the show that originally made the company’s name back in 2001. It’s described as “a deliciously demented take on the pulp gothic romance”, which is about as sensible a description as you can have for this totally wacky, anarchic, irreverent, very silly, very funny show.

Petra MasseyI guess if your sense of humour is geared more towards Rattigan or Coward, this probably isn’t for you. If you like something subversive and full of the unexpected, this more than fills the bill. It’s a sheer delight how they take a genre and then mock it mercilessly – and it doesn’t matter how familiar you are with their subject matter, because it seems to me all their shows contain a bit of everything. Cooped, for example, includes ghosts, a Eurovision-style pop song, a mischievous bishop and random wandering pheasants. With the old country house set and the shenanigans going on outside the leaded window, it actually put Mrs Chrisparkle in mind of the recent touring production of The Mousetrap, which is probably not a compliment to Miss Christie.

Stephan KreissTheir whole raison d’être is to make you laugh. There appears to be no end they won’t go to to achieve that aim. They will explore every tangent and every whim until it reaches the point of reductio ad absurdum, and it really works. They even subvert the set – with the window tricks, the steps off that clearly don’t go anywhere, the lift with its artificial flashing light. Their shows are not erudite comedies of which you will find yourself appreciating the finer points for weeks to come – they are slam dunk, in your face, happening now, laugh your socks off shows that live life to the full until curtain down.

Aitor BasauriOne can only wonder at the recruitment process at Spymonkey HQ. “So you want to join our band of merry men? The two chief elements in our Person Specification are 1) amazing clowning ability and 2) a complete lack of inhibitions”. There is some beautiful physical comedy in this show. Petra Massey’s ability to remain stiffly inanimate when she has collapsed and someone is trying to help her to her feet is extraordinary and leads to some hilarious moments. There’s also a wonderful scene where Stephan Kreiss’ face is being consistently bashed against a briefcase on the floor – such skilful clowning; as is his extremely active and rather disgusting tonguing of Miss Massey. As for inhibitions – look no further than the most unexpected and funniest ever use of nudity on a stage; never were figleaves more redundant. Acrobatic, ludicrous, brazen and totally gratuitous – and why not?

Toby ParkIt’s clear to see they’re all having fun on the stage – I doubt anyone could carry off this kind of performance if it was a chore. There was a marvellously teasing moment between Aitor Basauri’s Bishop of Northumberlandshirehampton and Toby Park’s Murdston based on the traditional kissing of the bishop’s ring, which was actually not as rude as it sounds. Their enthusiasm is deeply infectious, as the audience were loving every minute of it. It goes without saying that all four performers turned in brilliant performances.

The castThere were a couple of technical glitches in the first night performance we saw – sound volumes went wrong with the opening and closing of the window and a TV screen brought on during the performance of “Mr Sandman” (don’t ask) didn’t work. Given the number of sound and lighting cues they must have in the show it’s surprising there aren’t more errors. Mr Park’s “Jewish glasses” wouldn’t stay on his nose, to much amusement.

The programme promotes a couple of workshops that the company is running later this spring. I can only imagine that after two weeks’ working with them, you would be unrecognisable from the person you were before. Think of how much more confidence you would have!

A riotously funny evening, and one which we both agreed on the way home we could easily go back and see again. It’s on in Northampton till Saturday 19th January and then plays a few dates in Brighton and London in March. Go see it!

Photos of the Spymonkey team taken from their website, copyright Sean Dennie. I thought it was wise not to choose the naked ones!

Review – Oedipussy, Spymonkey, Royal & Derngate, Northampton, 15th February 2012

OedipussyIf you’re going to update a Greek tragedy, you might as well go the whole hog. Spymonkey’s latest production, born in Northampton and on the road until May, takes the mythical king from his youthful days in Corinth (“Corinth, Corinth”) to becoming the ruler of Thebes (“Thebes, Thebes”), making sure to include killing dad Laius at the crossroads, and marrying mum Jocasta, and encounters with Tiresias, the Sphinx, the Oracle, and the shepherds Lucky and Plucky (I think they made those names up.) You have to hand it to them – not only is it an evening of ludicrous comedy, they actually take you through the Oedipus story in quite a structured way. In all honesty you wouldn’t recommend it to the Fifth Form studying for exams, but I think Sophocles and Euripides would approve. No half hog here.

Apparently their inspiration for digging deep into serious legend came as a result of a bad review by Joyce McMillan – the name gets repeated a few times – in the Scotsman, of their show “Moby Dick”. It’s true – she really didn’t enjoy it. So I’d better be careful what I say lest I end up part of the introduction to their next show. It was the “bunch of middle-aged actors” line that really got Petra Massey’s goat – and I agree with her: if they really are the ages they say they are – and you get the feeling this is a company that would tell the truth – then I am older than all of them, and I’m still young, so there. If that review really was the kick up the backside they felt they needed – tongue in cheek no doubt – then jolly good show, because this is a very exuberant and entertaining experience, mixing Greek myth with James Bond and much more besides.

We’d actually seen the opening scene before – they performed it at the Royal and Derngate’s Subscription Launch – and it’s a wonderfully subversive and unusual way to open a show. By introducing you to the four actors, it cleverly gives you an initial insight into their characters and their roles within the company; and begins a link that runs throughout the evening of their coming out of character and engaging with the audience, as themselves, on whatever is playing on their mind. It’s quite a fun device for the actors to address the audience anyway – you feel you’re as much part of their evening as they are of yours – but it’s particularly rewarding when they’re talking about their fellow cast-members behind their back.

There’s no doubt at all that these four performers are naturally funny people, and, when you realise they have clown backgrounds, it all makes sense. I bet they could all do solo pieces that would fit perfectly in something like The Burlesque Show. They have a fluidity of movement, very expressive facial and eye movements, and above all, don’t give two hoots about how stupidly they are dressed (or not), which is handy in this production as most of the time they look like adverts for Tena. You get the feeling they are very brave performers who would go to the end of the world (stage-wise) if the art warranted it.

Petra MasseyI guess no one in this cast is braver than Petra Massey, who plays the Sphinx as half woman half cat but with a vital misinterpretation. Her chats with the audience were also amongst the most entertaining. When she suddenly breaks off and shares how the Oedipus story reflects her own life, it was very funny, and very believable, as was the way she went back into character. She also has a wonderful moment of comic business with what she does with a sheep sacrifice. Toby Park I also really liked Toby Park’s rather miserable soliloquy, lamenting his currently woeful job, knowing he’s capable of so much better than this, handing out his graphic and web design consultancy business cards at the end – which appear to be genuine – although he won’t get any work via his website as it requires a password to get in! He was also great as Tiberias, and as the Chorus whose hat looks like the icon for my spam folder.

Stephan KreissStephan Kreiss makes for a delightfully unhinged young Oedipus, let loose into the world and desperately seeking a shag, which you might get if you’re in the front row. As an older Oedipus he cuts a commanding figure – his lovey-dovey scenes with Jocasta are very funny and his tragic hero scenes are brilliantly over-the-top. Aitor BasauriAitor Basauri makes up the foursome, his physical appearance being especially unsuited to nappies. As Laius, his teaching Chrysippus how to wield a discus is scarily sensual. I also loved him alternating as Lucky and Plucky and his devotion to his sheep is inventively done.

Other highlights include his appearance as a singalong leper colony – really funny and so skilfully performed; the Oracle, whose eyes have something of Alice in Wonderland’s Pig Babies about them and the effective representation of blood and death. Jocasta’s was hilarious. I also loved the predictable but hilarious consequences of having headgear too large for the entrance door onto the stage. Simple ideas often work best.

If I have a criticism, it would be that, as a whole, it is so frothy, so cappuccino, so light in its touch, that actually, on the way home, there isn’t a lot to discuss. It’s very funny, end of. It’s also a Marmite production – I would say for every eight people laughing riotously, there were two sitting stony-faced. If you don’t get totally ridiculous comedy, I don’t think you’d like it. Mrs Chrisparkle adored it; I liked it a lot. This was our first Spymonkey experience; we’d definitely see them again and would recommend this show if you’re an aficionado of the ultra-daft.